DENVER -- In the post-mortems, the Buffalo Sabres could spread the blame everywhere on an ultra-messy performance.
Rust from the bye week. The struggles to push in the Mile High altitude. Defensive woes. Lack of finish on a night when they had 37 shots on goal and 66 shot attempts.
Pick a problem, any problem, and the Sabres had it Saturday night in Pepsi Center. The sum of the parts was a 5-3 loss to the lowly Colorado Avalanche, about as ill-timed a defeat as Dan Bylsma has had in his two years as Sabres coach.
The Sabres fell behind, 3-0, in the first 14 1/2 minutes and played the rest of the night trying to climb the mountainous deficit. They did a good job at times against Colorado rookie goalie Jeremy Smith but could never get the game even as Smith, a 27-year-old journeyman, made 34 saves for his first NHL victory.
"We give them a field goal to start the game and they really didn't do a ton to get them," Bylsma said glumly.
Former Sabre Mikhail Grigorenko burned his old team with a strong solo effort to escape Sam Reinhart and Dmitry Kulikov for the Avs' second goal.
"We could have made better decisions with the puck on the first two goals," Kulikov said. "We pushed back and almost evened the game up. Surprisingly, I think we had jumnp with our legs. There were decisions with the puck we could have made better."
When Tyson Barrie put the Avs up by three, Bylsma had seen enough and went with a timeout that featured a one-way discussion.
"The timeout was really just reset and refocus," Bylsma said. "We knew coming off the break it was going to be a tough game for us."
"We needed to just calm down, get our heads about us, get back to playing the right way," added defenseman Josh Gorges. "There were 45 minutes left and it's not like the game was over. He had to settle us down and he made the right call at that time."
The Sabres got goals from Sam Reinhart, Marcus Foligno and Evan Rodrigues but ultimately didn't get nearly enough from their top players. Reinhart was minus-4 in the game while Jack Eichel, Evander Kane and Rasmus Ristolainen were all minus-3.
"At the end of the day, it's up to us to bear down in front of the net," said Reinhart. "Opportunities were definitely there for us tonight. It's a little disappointing when you see the comeback happening, you see it right there for us to take. That game was ours to take over going into the third. We let one slip away and didn't capitalize on our chances."
The Sabres' push in the offensive zone gave them cause to not use the bye week as an excuse.
"We had some sustained shifts in the first 10 minutes," noted captain Brian Gionta. "But the breakdowns that led to the goals, just like that everything kind of snowballed and went in against us."
"Those are excuses. That wasn't the reason it was 3-0 I don't believe," Gorges said. "We need to be sharp. We're professionals. That's the way it goes."
Perhaps most galling was the fact the Sabres got plenty of help out of town and didn't take advantage.
"Going into the game, that looked like that was going to be the case," said Bylsma, referring to his peek at the scoreboard prior to the 10 p.m. Eastern time start the Sabres had.
The Islanders got blitzed, 7-0, in Columbus. Toronto and New Jersey both lost in overtime. Philadelphia lost its Stadium Series game outdoors in Pittsburgh. But Buffalo didn't take advantage, staying six points behind Boston for the final East wild card and falling seven behind Toronto for third in the Atlantic as they head for Arizona Sunday night.
"We only have 21 left now. We know we have to win 15 of them to get to a mark where we may be able to get in the playoffs," Bylsma said. "This is certainly a missed opportunity to get those two points."